'Frankenstein Dreams': When Sci-fi Lumbered into the Victorian Era

Did the Victorians deal with their rapidly changing society better than civilization today is dealing with equally new dizzying discoveries?

Michael Sims opens his book Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Science Fiction with a quote that is probably as true now as it was in 1818: "Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change."

The quote comes from Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (and not surprisingly comes from the "monster" who arguably has more common sense than does his creator).

Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Science Fiction

Michael Sims


September 2017

Whether or not Frankenstein is the very first work of science fiction is debatable. That said, it is arguably the book that opens the modern era of science fiction and introduces many of the archetypes found in more current science fiction (most notably the idea of the mad scientist and as a cautionary tale about the powers and dangers of scientific discoveries). A complicated and mythic book—it's almost hard to imagine it was written by a teenager.

For these reasons and others (including, as Sims notes, the enduring popularity of the story) Frankenstein is a perfect starting point for this book—an anthology that is both meant to celebrate the genre of science fiction and to "chronicle how Western civilization responded to the dizzying new discoveries of the nineteenth century".

There is much to celebrate in terms of 19th century science fiction. Most likely even the most tepid sci-fi fan is already familiar with the contributions H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne made to the genre. Other familiar names, but names not necessarily connected with science fiction include Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Some names—such as E. Nesbit and Grant Allen—may be less familiar but their contributions are no less notable.

Sims includes a lot of great stories (as well as excerpts from longer works such as Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). They, along with the brief introduction Sims provides for each, are fun to read. Still—what might be most interesting, though, is reading them as a collection and attempting to see what's changed—and what hasn't.

One thing that has changed is that most contemporary science fiction isn't mistaken for news—today fake news seems much more about politics rather than whether or not someone spied life on the moon or has been mesmerized. As Sims notes, Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", a story that focuses on mesmerism, was "often mistaken for an actual case history".

Some of the science has changed—we don't see many science fiction stories about traveling to the moon or discoveries that allow us to "hear" the past. Other times, though, the science seems much more modern, such as with Alice W. Fuller's "A Wife Manufactured to Order" which, as the title suggests, shows a world where someone can purchase a pleasant albeit robotic "companion for life for a few hundred dollars". Many of the somewhat mad scientists found in the book along with things like the genetic manipulations found in "Monsters Manufactured" also don't seem that far removed from the science fiction of the 20th (or even the 21st) century.

E. Nesbit (the E stands for Edith) seems somewhat ahead of her time with Lucilla, a character in "The Five Senses", who apparently breaks things off with her scientist fiancé because of their differing opinions on animal testing: "They're all God's creatures" Lucilla tells him. Even after he relates "Spencer Wells, that operation he perfected, it's restored thousands of women to their husbands—saved thousands of women for their children", Lucilla simply responds with a sentiment that would resonate with many today: "I don't care what he's done -- it's wrong if it's done that [by torturing rabbits] way."

Amazon's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle has perhaps brought attention back to the alternative history genre of science fiction, and Sims includes a sampling from this area as well. Edward Page Mitchell's "The Senator's Daughter" is a story that "casually envisions an America in which the Chinese have won a war with the United States and characters communicate by personal radio, travel from New York to Washington, D.C., via fast pneumatic tubes, dine on pills of condensed nutrition... and argue the virtues of the Mongol-Vegetarian political party."

Sims definitely achieves his goal: "to chronicle how Western civilization responded to the dizzying new discoveries of the nineteenth century." This goal, however, leads to a question: How did Western civilization respond? Granted, all we have here is a sampling (although a very nice sampling) from the 19th century, but using this collection as a guide, it appears they responded to these new discoveries with wit, thought, a lot of good writing and often not a lot of scientific detail.

Did the Victorians deal with their rapidly changing society better than civilization today is dealing with equally new dizzying discoveries? That's a hard question to answer, but perhaps it's somewhat comforting to know that those living in the 21st century aren't the first ones (and most likely won't be the last) to struggle with new technologies and discoveries.





The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.


Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.


Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.


Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.


Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.


The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.


Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.


The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.